Living the Mission With Baseball
On Saturday, June 17, 2017, a dozen players from the Sappy Moffitt Baseball League (SMBL) in South Bend, IN, boarded a bus and traveled an hour west on I-80 for a game against an unlikely opponent at an unlikely site, Westville Correctional Facility. The SMBL, a six-team league comprised of local farmers and factory workers, priests and judges, grade school teachers and university professors, scheduled a special road game at a state prison to play against college students enrolled in the Westville Educational Initiative (WEI). Arriving to the home team’s confines, Sappy players were greeted with hospitality and offered a tour of the facilities by staff who had come to work on their off day to facilitate the game. Sites included the Educational Complex, which holds the classrooms and library where WEI students learn under faculty from Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame. The main hallway spills out into the prison yard, like a stadium tunnel leading from the locker room to the field, and fans were already in the stands when the visitors walked onto a diamond encircled by barbed wire fences, enclosed by old brick dormitories, and overseen by a guard tower just beyond left field.
Then entered the home team. “Baseball? Alright!” shouted the first Westville player to take the field for warmups. “That’s what I’m talking about!” said the next. The players had anticipated playing a game of softball, a sport they regularly play in the prison yard. They delighted with surprise to see the red-seamed baseballs lying in the grass and wooden bats lined up against the backstop. Teams exchanged names and handshakes before tossing with each other, and respective coaches shared their lineup cards. After warm-ups, Alesha Seroczynski, director of college operations for WEI and organizer of this game, gathered all at home plate to tell of the legend of Sappy Moffitt, South Bend’s record-setting pitcher in the early 1900s, and the history of the SMBL. Before breaking the huddle to start the game, an onlooker in the crowd ran onto the infield and, with clicker in hand, offered his services as umpire. Two additional men volunteered to be scorekeepers and took their rightful seats behind the backstop. More fans gathered onto the bleachers, about 50 in total, and a sea of faces appeared in the top floor windows of the dormitories surrounding the field. With a mighty “Play Ball!” from the newly minted ump, the huddle broke and Westville took the field.
Sappy Moffitt jumped out to an early lead with five consecutive hits to start the game, causing some dugout chatter by the visitors about setting a run limit per inning so as not to run up the score on the home team. And just like that the next crack of the bat was countered by the pop of the mitt, a sharp liner snagged by the Westville shortstop who flipped the ball to second for a double play. The following pitch resulted in a grounder to third, easily scooped and fired to first for out number three. Two innings and a homerun later, Westville was up 4-2.
While play on the field remained competitive, players conversed throughout the afternoon about work and school, families and futures. But mostly the talk centered on baseball, the game that connected all of them. “The sound of the wooden bat hitting that ball…intoxicating,” remarked a player from the bench. A common refrain among the home team was how this game took them back to when they were kids at play. The visiting players experienced this sensation, too, as it was the desire to feel the magic of the game they knew so well during their youth that led to the establishment of their league.
The lead changed multiple times and the contest remained tense into the bottom of the fifth inning when the play of the game occurred. With a Westville runner on second and Sappy Moffitt up 8-7, the batter stroked a line drive up the middle for a hit. The Sappy centerfielder charged hard and fielded it cleanly as the baserunner, being wildly waved around third, dug into the dirt with full steam ahead. The throw came hurling in as the catcher, Ryan, took three steps up the third base line and made the catch just as the baserunner, Paul, was gliding by him. Ryan lunged backwards toward Paul with arm outstretched, ball in mitt, as Paul dove head first and hands open toward the plate. Players, coaches and fans alike jumped to their feet and shouted as the umpire moved to make a signal. The moment captured the day. Grown men playing a boys’ game, reveling in reliving childhood memories on a dirt field in a state prison. Each of them, in their respective at-bats, trying to make it safely home.
When the dust settled, teams and fans gathered in the prison garden area for a postgame meal of fellowship, hotdogs, potato salad and ginger ale. Some players recapped the action as the drying sweat from their temples glistened in the midday sun. Others simply enjoyed sitting under shaded oak trees for the first time in over a decade. One team’s leftfielder, with dirt coating his elbows and a smile covering his face, offered a game summary that no box score could capture. “For three hours this afternoon,” he declared, “I was a free man.”
Michael Hebbeler co-founded the Sappy Moffitt Baseball League and works in Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, sponsor of the postgame meal.
Joseph Canale, '15
“HC is the place to be” was the tag line of a music video created by Br. Nich Perez, CSC, and many of my classmates in the spring of 2012. Its message resonated with me because of its ability to highlight the vast amount of opportunities hosted by HCC, combined with a compilation of clips/photos of our student body living them out.
As I reflect, it’s very clear the impact Holy Cross College had on my life. I engaged with new people, developed friendships and acquired knowledge needed to be successful. After two memorable years at Holy Cross College, I transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I graduated with a degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communications. I now work for a Fortune 100 company and live in Raleigh, NC.
The decision of giving back isn’t something you have to do, it’s something you want to do. I want to give back to Holy Cross College because I want others to have the opportunity to experience what I did – because “The Experience Matters”. I want to read a note much like this in a few years and know that I played a small part in shaping that individual’s experience.
I urge you to give back to Holy Cross College at www.hcc-nd.edu/give, and enable the minds of the future so that they may go and make their mark on the world of tomorrow.
Kirk Barbieri, '78
A few years ago, Fr. Brian, our parish priest at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville, VA, delivered his annual homily on financial stewardship. I suspect it is a homily that he dreads to deliver more so than we, as parishioners, anticipate receiving it. But this particular year, he began his homily by asking: “Remember that famous country-western song I Ain’t Never Seen No Hearse Pullin’ No U-Haul?” Of course, everyone laughed. For a brief moment, I thought, “Is that really a song?” (It is – music and lyrics by Kenny Wayne – available on iTunes!) Rest assured, we all got the message.
Every month, when I make a contribution to my named scholarship fund at Holy Cross College, I think about that message. I think about helping others – particularly our students – who may be less fortunate than me. Although my contribution may be small, it doesn’t matter. I know that it helps someone in need and I know that I am blessed to be a part of the Holy Cross College family.
I hope that you may feel the same way and consider giving back to Holy Cross College. It’s so easy to make your gift online at www.hcc-nd.edu/give. I have enjoyed a successful career in higher education, but each day I remind myself that it all began at Holy Cross College. That is something I will always be grateful for.
by John Suddarth, '74
Holy Cross was a welcoming environment for returning veterans and I have always appreciated the treatment and respect accorded all students by the faculty and staff. Because of that community, I easily integrated into college life and was able to make the adjustment from military life to civilian and student life successfully. My time at Holy Cross was well spent and prepared me to complete my education at the University of Notre Dame.
I have no doubt that being part of the academic community of Holy Cross laid the foundation for my career and my dedication to being a lifelong learner. For all these reasons, Holy Cross – specifically, the Brother John Driscoll Society – is a major part of my annual charitable giving.